Mickey One (1965)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. Since it’s Chicago Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back on some essential Chicago movies, set (and often filmed) in the Windy City.

Mickey One (1965)

Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the title roles, is popularly seen as the flashpoint of the French New Wave’s influence on American cinema and the start of the New Hollywood era, which brought so many of the creative values of European art cinema into the American mainstream. But it was not the first attempt at a New Wave-style crime film by Penn or Beatty. Instead, that distinction belongs to Mickey One, an imperfect but unique film whose French influences were even more obvious and less Americanized. Aiming for the sort of surreal, existentialist pulp deadpan then associated with Jean-Luc Godard, Mickey One cast Beatty as a second-rate stand-up comedian who attempts to reinvent himself in Chicago under a new identity after getting into some murky trouble with the Detroit underworld. Penn even went so far as to import the Belgian-born French cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (whose next film would be Robert Bresson’s timeless Au Hasard Balthazar) to shoot the film, and his black-and-white outdoor location shooting remains one of the movie’s more remarkable features, capturing the contrast between the ancient and squalid alleyways of mid-1960s Chicago and its striking modernist architecture, including the iconic, corncob-shaped twin towers of Bertrand Goldberg’s recently completed Marina City.

As the earliest attempt at combining the slickness of Hollywood with the freewheeling verve of the New Wave, Mickey One is uneven. It can resemble a studio-bound drama of Second City seediness in The Man With The Golden Arm vein one moment, and a Kafka-esque art exercise the next. But it’s the kind of mixed bag that one dreams of stumbling across. From its wordless and efficient opening-credits montage to its strikingly ominous use of staircases, stages, and gratings as visual frames, Mickey One is a film that seems to exist to explore different creative angles on its air of anxiety and fatalism—an out-there jazz film made with big-studio instrumentation. It interrupts itself midway through for a self-destructive kinetic art performance by a Harpo Marx-like artist (the prolific Japanese scene-stealer Kamatari Fujiwara, in his only American role) that is exactly the sort of thing no New Wave film could afford and no Hollywood producer in their right mind would sign off on. In its own strange way, it is true to the deeply contradictory spirit of Chicago, a metropolis of disenfranchisement and collusion, neglect and gleaming new construction, timeless neighborhoods and continual migration, all tied together in a single street grid.

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